Blast from the past historical feature: The 150th railroad anniversary nobody remembered

“Gold-plated” locomotive for 100th anniversary | Submitted
“Gold-plated” locomotive for 100th anniversary | Submitted

Each week, the Western Springs Historical Society brings us different historical tidbits from Western Springs. In this edition, we look at the development of a much needed rail line between our area and downtown Chicago.

If you commute from Western Springs to downtown Chicago on Metra, you might take those trains for granted. But, in 1864, they were a radical innovation. Even with wooden coaches heated by coal stoves, the idea of being able to live in the country and work downtown was nothing short of amazing.

Prior to 1864, service between Chicago and Aurora involved the use of two rail-lines. Aurora passengers had to take the Burlington to what is now West Chicago where the Burlington trains would shift over to the Galena and Chicago Union tracks to downtown Chicago. But, it soon became apparent that a direct route was needed. And, so began the construction of the Aurora to Chicago line.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in building the new rail line was the swampy land between Western Springs and Hinsdale, now occupied by the Tri-State Tollway. In fact, during the construction, a work train reportedly sank into the muck, its eventual fate not known. 

In the very earliest days, the one-way fare from Western Springs to downtown Chicago was 46 cents, while a monthly pass cost $6. Commuters could choose from 17 trains a day with an average travel time of 42 minutes. 

While the commuter line was usually the last to receive new train cars, the suburbs’ post-World War II population boom posed a major problem. Besides needing more passenger cars, the Burlington officials realized that most suburban station platforms could not handle trains that were significantly longer. This was a major factor in the construction of the first double-deck commuter cars in 1950.

As steam locomotives gradually gave way to diesel power, the Burlington’s commuter service took on a much more modern look. But, in 1964, the railroad paused to take note of its having provided commuter service for 100 years.  

After taking one of its retired steam locomotives out of mothballs, the Burlington gave it a fresh coat of gold paint to commemorate this special anniversary. The company then used the locomotive to pull a special excursion train from Chicago to Aurora, picking up specially-invited civic leaders en route. Once there, passengers were treated to a centennial dinner. 

For the general public, the railroad installed “gold” centennial medallions on all of its commuter cars. It also operated two steam excursions the following week from Chicago to Aurora, where riders could view a special display of historic railroad equipment. 

Since 1964, much has changed. The Burlington became the Burlington-Northern, and later the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. In addition, commuter service became the responsibility of Metra, which contracts with BNSF and other railroads to provide its commuter services. 

Sadly, no special recognition is planned in 2014, the commuter line’s 150th anniversary. But, there’s little question that this rail link was, and continues to be, a major element in Western Springs’ development.

Each week, the Western Springs Historical Society presents a “Blast from the Past”. To view prior stories, visit us at www.westernspringshistory.org.

This content was submitted by a member of the community. We’d like to hear from you, too! To share stories, photos, video or events for our calendar, please email Community News Manager Michael Cronin at michael@aggrego.com or use the online submission tool.

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